Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
This is the answer Jesus gave the religious leaders and politicians who attempted to trap him into admitting that Jews should pay tribute to Caesar. Believers today tend to understand Jesus’ answers to be, “Of course, good Christians pay their taxes.” However, that understanding does not arise from a historical and contextual reading of this text.
First, if Jesus had answered clearly and unambiguously—that Jews should pay taxes to Caesar—then his adversaries could have revealed Jesus as the false Messiah they believed him to be. Since no true King of Israel would concede that tribute should be paid a pagan overlord like Caesar.
Secondly, if Jesus had answered clearly and unambiguously that Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar, then his adversaries could have handed him over to Rome as a subversive and be done with him.
So what did Jesus’ response mean? How did Jesus avoid both of these trap doors?
By reviewing the image on the coinage, Jesus underscored the religious leaders and politicians’ hypocrisy in using “Caesar’s” money in the first place. Though the Jews strongly detested images of any kind as in keeping with the first of the Ten Commandments (not to make graven images), they had, in this case, capitulated. Now they had to admit how dependent they really were on Rome; and consequently—if they thought more deeply about it, how little they actually trusted God. “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19.15) was truer than any of them would have admitted.
What amazed the people is not that Jesus said believers should pay their taxes without actually saying believers should pay their taxes; but that Jesus had been able to bypassed totally the either/or mentality of his opponents (as well as most Christian interpreters today).
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s || and to God what is God’s.”
Using the common poetic device of parallelism Jesus crafted a conundrum (a riddle or parable designed to tease and puzzle one into a deeper levels of understanding). Thus when we read this saying along the lines of “Pay your taxes and don’t forget your tithes” we greatly miss the point; most of us give Caesar more money than we do the church anyway.
The wonder of the statement is that once we give God his due, what is left for Caesar? Nothing! This was the beauty of the statement! It rested in the eye of the beholder! One inclined to trust Caesar would hear it one way; while those inclined to trust God would hear it another.
He who has an ear to hear…